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From placenta to play centre

The rumble in the jungle: Single-sex vs. coeducational schooling

I have a confession to make…I went to an all-boys private school.

Go on, admit it. You just judged me a little bit, didn’t you?

I can’t blame you. Looking back – and even at the time – the whole experience was a tad surreal.

At 12 years of age, I, along with 149 other fresh-faced chaps, entered a world in which socks were to be worn knee-high, hair was to be kept above the collar, and shirts were to remain tucked; a world in which the sole purpose of recess was to find the most inventive way to destroy each-others’ uniforms; a world in which teachers’ names were contorted in the most pleasing of ways to resemble selective parts of the male and female anatomy.

But, despite all of that – or, more likely, because of it - my second confession is this: I loved it!

Perhaps it was just that the all-boy environment was the right ‘fit’ for me. I loved playing sport, enjoyed the humour and hijinks, and thrived in the camaraderie of this atmosphere.

But I’m keenly aware that not everyone had the same experience as me. And for these boys-now-men, my bet is that the all-boy environment was a chief source of their woes.

Single-sex vs. coeducational schooling

Along with politics and religion, the debate about single-sex (boys and girls separate) versus co-educational (boys and girls together) schooling is a topic best kept away from polite dinner conversation. Everyone has an opinion on this, and you can almost bet that your conversational partner will have a different one to you.

From the very earliest stages of parenthood, schooling is an issue that sits in the back of parents’ minds, making them wince every time it creeps into their consciousness. It would be a rare mother- or father-to-be, who hasn’t, even for the most fleeting of moments, considered whether their impending child would spend 12 of their most formative years surrounded by one sex or two.

Most often, these choices are dictated by the experiences of the parents themselves. If they enjoyed their schooling, then their child will likely follow in their footsteps. If not, then you can be sure that the child will be ushered down a different path.

This approach makes perfect sense to me. A parent remembers their own experience, has a keen awareness of their child’s personality, and is able to combine the two to come out with a reasonable idea of what schooling model will suit best.

But, common sense aside (always a dangerous thing!), given the heated debate on this topic, I became intrigued as to what scientific research in this area has found. Prepare yourself.

School choice - parents are the experts. Flickr/TushyD

The science

My first stop was a 2005 report commissioned by the US Department of Education, which reviewed all studies examining single-sex versus co-educational schools up until that date.

It’s a hefty-document – all 128 pages of it – and I wouldn’t recommend it for bedtime reading, unless, of course, you yearn for dreams about the finer points of quantitative and qualitative statistics. The researchers divided the findings of the 112 studies reviewed into those examining academic achievement and socio-emotional development during school, and in adult-life. What they found was quite interesting.

Academic achievement at school: One third of the studies in this area found that students from single-sex schools had better academic performance during the school years than students from co-educational schools. This was found for both males and females, for both primary and secondary schooling, and for all subjects.

However – and this is very important - the remaining two-thirds of the studies found no difference between the performance of students from the two types of schools.

Academic achievement after school: Only four studies to that date (2005) had examined indicators of post-school academic achievement, such as university scores, university graduation and career achievement. Generally speaking, no differences were found between students who had attended single-sex and co-educational.

Socioemotional development at school: There was a complicated mish-mash of results here. (Scientists like to categorize such results under the wonderfully euphemistic descriptor ‘mixed findings’ – which basically means ‘how in the world am I going to be able describe this mess?’).

For example, single-sex school students tended to have better ‘self-concept’ (knowledge of self), but co-educational students had higher-levels of self-esteem (feelings of self-worth). Oh, and I must add that close to half of the studies found no difference in these measures between students from the two types of schools.

Confused? Me too.

Socioemotional development after school: Again, very few studies have investigated this area. The few that have - and had a research design that passed muster - have found ‘mixed results’ (I’m not above using a good euphemism!).

Single-sex school graduates had reduced unemployment (males and females), a wider variety of occupations (females only), and increased political activism (females only). However, single-sex school students were more likely to have an eating disorder - though, please keep in mind that there was only one study in this area.

One thing of particular interest to me was the research investigating sex-role stereotyping (i.e., did they view men as the providers and women the home-makers?). Intriguingly, the results here were split: one study found these views were more common among ex-students of a single-sex school, and another which found these stereotypes more prevalent among ex-students of a co-educational school.

The one study that examined divorce-rates, found no difference between ex-students of single-sex and co-educational schools.

Two notes of caution

So, that’s a summary of the research to 2005. Has much happened since? Yes, research has continued to percolate into the literature. But from my analysis, there hasn’t been any ‘game-changing’ research that alters much in the above review.

Nevertheless, I would like to tack on two caveats to this summary.

The first stems from a recent article by Dianne Halpern and colleagues in Science, which trumpeted the deliberately provocative title, “The pseudoscience of single-sex schooling”.

This paper attacked the science around the one area for which there is evidence that single-sex schooling may be beneficial - academic achievement during school. Specifically, the authors argued that many of the “apparent advantages dissolve when outcomes are corrected for pre-existing differences”. In plain English, they are saying that children entering single-sex schools may already be more academically advanced than students entering co-educational schools.

My own reading of the situation is that, yes, certainly some studies have (quite stunningly!) failed to account for this possibility. However, there are also other studies which have examined this, and still found differences in academic achievement.

The second caveat is more of a reminder that educational systems differ between countries - often dramatically so. I wonder how much sense it makes to combine studies from Australia, Canada, the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago, and South Korea (to name only a few)? I can only imagine a few similarities between the school-yards of Seoul and those of downtown Chicago.

What’s the verdict?

So, after all of that science, I have to say that I’ve come back to my original assessment of the situation: trust your good sense.

Think back to your own schooling, and think about your child’s attributes. Which do you think they’ll prefer?

You have all of this knowledge, and are therefore the expert. No amount of science can change that.

But one thing that I think the science has crushed, is the old stereotypes for pupils of all-boys schools (silver-spooned, one-track minded, walking fart-jokes), all-girls schools (the collective noun once being described to me as a ‘cat-fight of private-school girls’), and co-educational schools (more likely to end up in a court room than a board room) should be dead and buried.

While these caricatures may apply to a minority of students, on the whole, they just aren’t true.

Trust me, I’m an ex-private schoolboy.

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